In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour
Only once since 1945 has a British prime minister been evicted as a result of a successful no-confidence vote in parliament. That was on 28 March 1979, one of the most dramatic nights in modern parliamentary history. After many months of struggling for its life, Jim Callaghan’s battered minority Labour government faced a confidence vote brought by the Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher. It was nerve-shreddingly close. The Callaghan government lost by just one vote. Once the tellers for each side had marched up in front of the Speaker and read the result, there was uproar, during which Tories cheered with delight and some Labour leftwingers sang The Red Flag. Callaghan then got up to the dispatch box to make a brief and dignified statement in which he declared “we shall take our case to the country” at an election that he promised to hold “as soon as possible”. This would be an election that Callaghan had concluded, rightly, that he was going to lose.
In strict law, he didn’t have to do that. The requirement that an election must be called by a government that has lost a confidence vote was “a firm convention” rather than solid legislation, as are the understandings that a government won’t unreasonably delay an election and will not do anything contentious once a campaign is under way. When people refer to the British constitution, they are talking about a hotch-potch of such conventions, combined with ancient charters, precedents, international agreements, legislative bolt-ons and unwritten understandings. The fabric of this messy tapestry is held together by a crucial thread. That is an underlying assumption that everyone can be trusted to behave in a proper way. In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour and playing fair.
Read more: theguardian.com